ALTA Fellow: Janet Kim Ha

Janet Kim Ha was born in 1985 in the Hyde Park area of Chicago, where her South Korean parents were PhD students. Because of the disparate nationality laws of the United States and South Korea, she was considered a citizen in both countries since her birth. As a toddler she learned to speak Korean from her parents and English from babysitters and media. Her mother lost no time in teaching Janet to read, intending to occupy Janet with books and thus free up her own time for finishing her dissertation.

When she was three years old, Janet’s father accepted a position as associate professor of business at Sogang University in Seoul. The family returned to Korea, putting in motion the oscillations between the two countries in Janet’s life. Three years later, Janet returned to Chicago with her mother, who was still in the process of finishing her degree.  Her mother graduated within a year, and her family was reunited in Seoul.

As a child, Janet was exposed to the classics of the east and west. She became captivated by the Elgin Marbles of the British Museum on a family trip to London and sought out books on Greek mythology and art upon her return to Seoul. Dazzled also by the comic book version of the Chinese epic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, she read through translations of the Four Great Classical Novels of China.

In the fifth grade, she became frustrated by the inkling that her English skills were regressing and asked her parents if they would allow her to transfer from the Korean curriculum to an English-speaking private school. They acceded, enrolling her as a student at Seoul International School, a K-12 school whose graduates usually go on to colleges in the United States. But they also insisted on Janet’s continuing her education in the full Korean curriculum with a hired tutor.

The unique environment of Seoul International School made Janet mindful of the link between language and identity at an early age. Speaking in Korean was forbidden within the school premises, and any offending student was made to serve after-school detention. Janet observed that, despite strict enforcement of the policy, many of her classmates adopted the smuggling of Korean chatter in the hallways as a passive form of protest. As native Koreans, they felt it integral to their identity to express their most earnest thoughts to their dearest friends in Korean. In a word, Korean was their linguistic orientation. Conscious of the ambiguity in her own linguistic orientation, Janet was often beset by fears of being able to use neither English nor Korean with the dexterity required of a professional writer.

In 2003, Janet entered Amherst College in western Massachusetts. She acted on her long-standing love of books by taking classes in English literature, on her long-standing love of ancient civilizations by taking classes in Greek and Latin, and on her long-standing love of Chinese classics by learning Mandarin. She double-majored in English and classical studies. Her senior year, she won the Hutchins Prize in Greek and the Bertram Prize in Latin.

Upon graduation, Janet moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to work as an AdWords Account Strategist at Google’s headquarters (i.e. the Googleplex). She moved back to Massachusetts a year later to work at Google Boston and also, incidentally, to marry her Amherst classmate Matthew Mascioli.

She left Google in 2010 to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in fiction writing at Indiana University Bloomington. Since entering the program, she has been a two-time winner of the Edward Poole Lay Fellowship and a winner of the Roland Wood Fellowship, both awarded to graduate students in film and writing. Recently, she has won the Booth Tarkington Thesis-Year Fellowship in Creative Writing.

During her second year in the program, she enrolled in two translation workshops instructed by Polish language literary translator Dr. Bill Johnston and found them to be the most invigorating collaborative environments she had been a part of.  She became particularly passionate about her two translation projects, “Morning’s Door” and “Good at Soccer, Too,” both written by Park Minkyu, a prominent new writer in the South Korean literary scene.  She has never been happier in her ambiguous linguistic orientation than when translating these stories.

Janet continues to translate stories by Park Minkyu. Janet is also working on her first collection of short stories for her MFA thesis. Most of her stories depict in English various lives conducted in Korean.

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